[Note: Navel gazing about the blog]
2018 will soon be over. It felt fast. I guess it makes sense that my third year blogging felt faster than the first or the second. I’ve gotten used to it now. It’s a routine.
Well, not quite. It has been an eventful year, despite a slow start. I wrote some things in January that got all tangled up and went nowhere before I managed to publish Wordy Weapons of Is-Ought Alloys and its follow-up Beliefs as Endorsements in February to not much fanfare. They were followed by Six Kinds of Reading and the niche April Fools joke Voices on the Genius of the Bit Artists. Things were humming along nicely but quietly.
But in late April, after a month of work clearing up the complex spat between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein over Harris’s decision to give controversial social scientist Charles Murray a sympathetic hearing, the result A Deep Dive Into the Harris-Klein Controversy “took off” (by my standards anyway) and brought in a lot of new visitors, many times more than I was used to. That led to some other articles getting attention too, including last year’s The Nerd as the Norm that got on the front page of Hacker News and made May my biggest month ever by quite a margin.
Things have calmed down since then but the blog remains around five times as popular as it was before April, and as 2018 draws to a close it has to be considered a big success, audience-wise. On fronts outside the blog things happened too. I got Postmodernism vs. the Pomoid Cluster republished in Areo Magazine, my Twitter following is ten to twenty times what it was a year ago (very small then, but still) and the number of subscribers to the Erisology subreddit is up to ~650 from ~100.
Great. External validation is a hell of a drug. But how has the actual writing progressed? Have I accomplished anything?
Total volume appears stable. This year I wrote (including this one) 17 posts totaling 65,000 words. That’s a small novel’s worth of wordage albeit slightly lower than last year when I wrote 27 posts and 69,000 words. Although if I exclude last summer’s 7-part series adapted from my Bachelor’s Thesis in philosophy that I didn’t actually write then, it was 20 posts and 50,000 words, meaning total productivity is actually up.
But I don’t feel productive. Instead I constantly feel like I should be able to write more. I said a year ago that the quality of my writing has improved every year, and 2018 is no exception. This year was better than last year, which was better than the year before. But one thing that doesn’t appear to improve by practice — at least not as much as I’d like it to — is self-discipline. I work better when I work, but I don’t find it much easier to work in the first place. I still procrastinate almost as much as a I always have. Perhaps even a little more. That’s bad news, because I know that improvement comes from practice, practice and more practice and if I can get better at practicing the actual writing will improve at an exponential rate.
So why don’t I? This is definitely some mental block that kicks in only sometimes. If I can throw together a 300-word Twitter thread in ten minutes, then why does it take a month to write a 3000-word article instead of, like, 100 minutes? A post could be ready in two lunch breaks. Easily one a week. How come I’ve been leaving so much productivity on the table like that? Why is long form writing so much harder than it ought to be?
One reason is that complexity increases superlinearly with length. In other words, a 3000 word piece is more than 10 times as complex as a 300 word one, and I often get tangled up in that complexity. A common failure mode is writing something exploring an idea and going wherever the mind takes me until I get confused about what I want to say, it all gets too long and too unfocused because I keep thinking of new associations, or just starts contradicting itself because I discover counterexamples or complications or maybe this idea isn’t as good as I thought once I write it out aw crap. Then I either spend a lot of time editing and restructuring it until it works and I’m sick to death of it, or I just leave it, hoping I’ll get back to it eventually. Sometimes I do get back — I wrote most of Anatomy of Racism from last month in June 2017 and then let it rest for well over a year — but it’s rare. I’ve got at least half a dozen pieces mothballed, in addition to the many others I’m partially working on or intend to be working on real soon now.
I also shouldn’t underestimate the impact of feeling that I have an audience now (certainly more than I used to) and have to have standards. I can’t just write down any half-digested thought that pops into my head (Twitter is different because that’s expected). It better be a proper article without any obvious problems I’d be embarrassed by people noticing. When nobody was reading I could write idle thoughts like this and this, underdeveloped ideas like this or self-indulgent complaining like this and this, but now I try to avoid that since I don’t want to waste anyone’s time or scare people off by posting below-average quality pieces (yes, as the mathematically astute reader immediately noticed, that means getting better all the time).
It’s a (vicious?) cycle. I’d like to write more short, off-the-cuff pieces, but I can’t because the longer I go between posts the more a less-than-ambitious one feels like a letdown. The longer you wait, the bigger the meal have to be to break the fast and the longer it takes to make. I don’t know how to solve that.
There are clear signs of this effect, not just in my head but in my output. This year has seen a shift towards fewer and longer posts. The Harris-Klein piece is more than twice as long as my earlier record holder from 2017 (at 4300 words). In addition, the follow-up Decoupling Revisited was also longer than that, my review of Elephant in the Brain clocked in at almost 7000, and the massive Anatomy of Racism broke 10,000 for the first time.
Here’s a chart (each bar is one post, time on the X, word count on the Y):
See? A noticeable shift in 2018: longer and fewer (the very end excepted, but that’s partly an early effect of what I’m going to say now).
I’m ambivalent about this trend. Longer posts can cover more ground and make more of an impression, and more very long ones show I’ve become comfortable with more ambitious writing projects I wouldn’t have been able to take on back in 2016.
But they’re also less user friendly. With long posts you’re likely trading a bigger number of readers for a shot at making a bigger impression on fewer people. Sometimes that’s a good idea, sometimes it’s not. High risk, in any case.
They’re also a lot of work. I put more effort than I really can defend into Facing the Elephant and Anatomy of Racism, and yes, sometimes it made me ask myself, like I did in my last yearly review, why the hell I’m doing this at all.
It’s probably worth trying to reverse this trend at least a little bit. The pendulum has swung too far to one end and next year I’ll do my best to be more accepting of shorter, rougher posts instead of letting too much energy dissipate through procrastination and self-doubt — if nothing else I need that just to get through my queue, which is… well I don’t know how long it is any more. Longer than ever. Despite having gotten a lot of thoughts out of my head over the last three years it’s no less crowded in there. Still, I prefer it over the alternative.
Plans for 2019
So for next year I have a few plans: write more shorter and less ambitious posts, partly to get past procrastination, and partly to get rid of dust magnets. I’ve already started by knocking out The Romeo and Juliet Fallacy in a few hours last week. Given how things have gone so far, these quick ones are likely to reach at least 2000 words anyway. Everything does.
I also plan to pitch some more articles to Real Publications. Getting my postmodernism piece into Areo Magazine made me think of this as a real possibility, after having previously considered my style too idiosyncratic, abstract and personal to fit in anywhere but my own blog. However, I’m not sure when I can expect to finish any of the ones I have planned. For some reason I’m finding it hard to prioritize them. It’s this blog that’s my baby.
Maybe I’ll get a new design, one that feels more “essay collection” than “random guy’s blog”. Of course I’ve been thinking about that for over a year and nothing has happened, so I’ll give it about 40% probability of happening at all.
Someone suggested to me that I record audio versions of my posts. He made a strong case that this is much more attractive to many people than long texts. I’m seriously considering it, but at the moment it’s hard to get that done when I have a lot of writing I want to do and recording something old doesn’t give me the same satisfaction completing a new post does. It’s also hard to find enough time alone and in silence. I have a job and a family and I write on breaks at work, on my phone, and in coffee shops. There’s no natural time and place for me to make recordings.
I already have done another thing in anticipation of 2019: get a Patreon page. Somebody asked me on Twitter if I had one and I said I don’t, because never in my wildest dreams have I thought I could make any money blogging. I still don’t think I can, but making a page was so easy that, what the hell, why not? I don’t want to badger anybody to support Everything Studies financially (how uncouth that would be), but if you’re so inclined it’s now possible.
That’s more or less all my thoughts on 2018 and 2019. It’s less anxiety-ridden than last year’s equivalent, and I think that has to do with 1) more success in terms of audience and attention, which works as strong enough reinforcement that I no longer think about quitting as much, and 2) more experience giving me greater capabilities and a clearer sense of what style and format works for me, making concerns both about unclear focus/direction and the mismatch between my ambitions and what I can deliver less pressing.
See you in 2019.
• • •
The unexpectedly popular 30 fundamentals was, for example, enjoyable and comparatively easy to write because it was a series of tweet-like bits I didn’t feel the need to wrap in a longer, more complex argument.